The lack of lawyers in rural areas has attracted much attention lately. Rural pockets with few or no lawyers living there, the so-called legal deserts, are on the upswing.

According to some surveys, 14% of the population lives in rural areas, but only 2% of lawyers do. A 2020 ABA study found that 40% of all counties in the US have fewer than one lawyer for every 1000 residents. Fifty-two counties have no lawyers, and another 182 have only one or two.

There are multiple reasons for the dearth of rural lawyers. Many young lawyers simply want to live in more urban areas. They value the quality of life, cultural opportunities, and better access to health care that urban areas offer. Many have professional spouses who also want and need to work. Instead of one job, deciding to be a rural lawyer requires finding two jobs in areas where job opportunities may not be as plentiful as in urban areas.

Lawyers also fear they will be unable to make as much money working in rural areas. It’s not just greed: most young lawyers have significant student loans that must be paid. Young lawyers worry about a lack of training and mentorships that would be available to them if they choose to practice in a legal desert.

Add to this the fact that many older rural lawyers are reaching retirement age. This reduces the number of lawyers serving rural populations. And it also means fewer opportunities for younger lawyers to work with older lawyers in those areas and gain experience.

These declining numbers are bad for the profession and society for many reasons. First and foremost, it means that people living in rural areas will be deprived of access to lawyers, the court system, and justice itself. The legal problems these folks face are not much different from the problems everyone faces when it comes to law. Property transactions, wills, divorce, lower-level criminal issues. Like people everywhere, rural folks find the cost of legal services for most things is simply prohibitive. But people living in rural areas face another big problem: they can’t find a lawyer even if they could afford one.

Asking people to live someplace they aren’t interested in for money will likely not work. At best, it’s a temporary fix

Most of the proposed solutions focus on incentivizing younger lawyers to move to and practice in rural areas. As if short-term financial incentives will entice them to move there and live there long term.

I talked to Cat Moon, the Director of Innovation Design Program in Law and Innovation at Vanderbilt University and a leading thinker on problems like the legal desert. Cat is a fifth generation lawyer who grew up in small town where her father practiced law. Despite this, she never considered going back to her hometown for many of the reasons mentioned above. Says Cat, “If I, someone with a strong connection to the rural community and with no substantial debt to repay would not chose [the rural] path, its stretching the collective imaginationn to think that any program to incentivize lawyers to move to rural communities is going t have any kind of measurable impact.”

Most solutions miss the point of why lawyers aren’t interested in moving to rural areas in the first place. Financial incentives don’t really address the issues that are holding people back. Issues like jobs, lifestyle, gaining experience, health and even childcare. Asking people to live someplace they aren’t interested in for money will likely not work. At best, it’s a temporary fix. 

Using financial incentives to draw lawyers, especially younger lawyers, to move someplace to address the lawyer desert problem is trying to solve a new problem with an old way of thinking. If we can get lawyers to move to rural areas, the needs of rural people will be served.

How can we as a profession deliver services and outcomes in the rural desert in new and different ways?

But that’s focusing on the lawyers, not serving the people that need help. In other words, if we are going to solve the rural legal service gap, we need to ask different questions. How can we as a profession deliver services and outcomes in the rural desert in new and different ways, for example? How can we try to solve the legal desert problem differently than we have traditionally solved problems like this? In ways other than trying to convince lawyers to move to where the clients with the needs are?

We can begin to focus on providing the service in new ways. The pandemic, for example, has taught us that a lot of legal work can be done without everyone being in the same room. It has shown us that court proceedings need not always be held in person.

Applying these lessons to the legal desert problem lets us think about how lawyers might serve clients in rural areas without necessarily living in those areas. We can think about remotely linking young lawyers in urban areas with older lawyers in rural areas for mentorship and learning experiences. We can think about financial incentives not based on moving but on serving. So, a younger lawyer could get a stipend in return for committing a defined period serving rural clients in diverse locations, for example.

We can ask judges to look for ways to get younger lawyers from urban areas more involved in their courtrooms. We can ask the judiciary to welcome these lawyers and ensure that proceedings are conducted remotely whenever possible. We can seek funds to improve internet service in rural areas instead of renovating courthouses. We can encourage the use of technology to bridge some of the gaps in service to those in rural areas and reduce the overall access to justice gap.

Cat thinks we can also look to the medical profession for service ideas. “Imagine if we had well trained legal experts (not lawyers) in the kinds of issues that folks in rural communities most need help with—just as nurse practitioners help with common medical issues. We can train and authorize…helpers to provide the help where it’s needed, in ways that are accessible and at a cost more folks can afford.”

It sure beats no service at all

Of course, the argument is that servicing people in new ways that do not require lawyers at all or with lawyers living elsewhere somehow diminishes the quality of legal service. But the traditional model isn’t working. People aren’t getting the legal services they need. Having those needs met by someone who may not be a lawyer or by a lawyer who lives elsewhere sure beats no service at all..

So let’s start asking the right question: how can the legal needs of those in rural areas be best served in today’s world?